Years of work and communication yields inclusive translation serving six dialects

— September 2023, Iwala Village, Mbeya Region, Tanzania

featured photo, above: A crowd in dancing procession through the village was filled with joyous cheers, beaming smiles, and hands waving leafy branches as they prepared to launch the Safwa New Testament. (photo: Leonard Mwasandube)

“There is no foreign language to God! He understands every tongue…”

It was a Saturday morning on a soccer pitch near the church in Iwala Village, part of the Safwa language community. A crowd had gathered, but there was no game. A group of local pastors had everyone form up in two parallel lines, and many in the crowd held large, leafy branches in hand. Then two of the pastors led the lines marching off the pitch and toward the church.

As they began to walk, a hymn spread through their ranks. The singing grew louder, and walking turned to dancing. Shouts and cheers of joy, faces beaming with smiles, filled the procession from one end to the other.

The Safwa are nearly a quarter of a million people, living among the Mbeya and Poroto mountain ranges of western Tanzania. Mostly they are crop farmers, with simple homes of mud brick and grass or tin roofs. Around two hundred Safwa people were gathered that day for a celebration. Their joy was for the official launch of the completed New Testament, finally translated into their own language.

The Safwa translation project was part of SIL Tanzania’s Mbeya Cluster Project (MCP), together with as many as a dozen other teams translating in neighbouring languages of the region. Roughly half of the Safwa are Christians, according to census data. Non-Christians are very open to the Gospel but also to joining occult groups. “Many Safwa live in fear of those occult groups,” one team member explained, “and they do not know what it means to be protected by Jesus Christ.” It’s one reason there is much enthusiasm among the Safwa for God’s Word.

“I sensed such great joy that day,” said Katherine O’Donnell, serving MCP as a Scripture Use Consultant. “As they danced into the church carrying a gift-wrapped box of New Testaments, even the women busy preparing food for everyone came with them. Ladies were waving their big spoons and cooking pots in the air, and even waving tomatoes and onions on sticks!”

The dedication service was filled with speeches in the Safwa language. The crowd included not only people from nearby villages but numerous local government officials and pastors. “A school teacher came all the way from Dar es Salaam,” said O’Donnell, “and colleagues from our Mbeya teams and from our other translation projects in Tanzania.”

Long before the dedication day, Safwa translator Jamili Waya (far right) gathered local volunteers in a Safwa village to help test early drafts of the team’s translation of Matthew’s Gospel. (2017)

photo: Steve Pence

Like many Bible translation projects, a start date can be tricky to pin down for the Safwa team’s work. As early as 2009, about ten years after a sociolinguistic survey of the language community, the first Safwa translators were in full-time training. They drafted the Old Testament books of Jonah and Ruth as part of that learning process. Their work on the New Testament itself began a couple years later.

It was not long, however, before the team faced a serious crisis. Not every Safwa speaks their language the same way. As drafts of translated Scripture and other materials began to reach the community, differences led to sharp conflict.

“When the first translated books arrived, there were big problems!” The Chairman of the Safwa Language Advisory Committee remembered the project’s early struggles in his speech. “You may think it is a small task,” he said, “but the Safwa people have about six dialects. If any ‘Ilungu’ person comes speaking their Safwa here, you might say that it is not Safwa. If you go to where the sun rises from Shoka, it is called ‘Indwanga’. Here it is called ‘Mgendemo.’ It is no small task!”

“We had to put the Safwa translation on hold for a while,” said Helen Eaton, “because of conflict and suspicion over dialect choice early on. I remember very well how stressful it was.” Dr. Eaton is Senior Linguistic Consultant for SIL Tanzania. “Then about fifteen years ago,” she added, “we did a dialect survey and met with the Safwa language committee to decide on a way forward. The contrast between the conflict then and the unity and joy at the New Testament dedication was wonderful.”

“The six dialects of Safwa have quite a bit of lexical variation,” added Hazel Gray, a Linguistics Advisor for the Mbeya Cluster Project. “The team worked very hard, for years, to make their translation as inclusive and understandable as possible for everyone in the community. This completed Safwa New Testament brings together all these different dialects by using the words that are most widely understood by all.”

Pastors are especially excited about the hope of transformed lives that translated Scriptures in their own language will bring. The community has been vastly supportive of the project; they value their language highly and have eagerly waited for the Word of God.

During the launch celebration service, a very great highlight was the reading of God’s Word from the new Safwa translation.

photo: Emmanuel Mwankosole

In 2014, the team dedicated their completed translations of Jonah, Ruth, Mark’s Gospel, and the “Pastoral Epistles” (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus). Not long after, they translated the Gospel of Luke and used that to complete their version of the JESUS film in 2019. Finally, after more than a decade of work on the Safwa New Testament, their full manuscript passed all its final checks and in 2022 began the process of typesetting for print.

The day’s speeches shared several common themes — thanks and dedication to God, overcoming obstacles, preserving and promoting language culture. Another key point was distribution, the now high priority of getting the Safwa New Testament out into the community.

“As for me, I like it!” said Ramani Yongo. “I have decided that I will buy this Safwa New Testament. I am so happy that I will buy it, and I will continue to learn. I know how to read it, but in helping others I will continue to learn.” Yongo is Vice Principal of a Bible College in the region. “I remember one thing these Bible translators told us: ‘If you teach people in their own language, it touches them more.’ And I have learned it is true. This is a great treasure. Let me say on this historical day: God will bless us greatly as we continue to meditate on the Bible, and learn it in our language, and teach other people, too.”

“I have come to represent the Safwa community in Tanzania,” Boniface Mwasonga told the listening crowd. Mwasonga is Safwa, and works as a school teacher in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s bustling port city on the coast. He also works to curate exhibits of Safwa history and life at the National Museum in Dar. “Now I have told the museum director,” he said, “that we are bringing the Safwa Scriptures!”

One of the MCP staff who attended the celebration, Leonard Mwasandube (in the Ethnoarts team), also served as an official photographer and interviewed many people. He related that one older man had told him, “I am so happy to get this Safwa New Testament! I will be reading it every day. And one very good thing — the text is big enough so even if someone has eye problems they can still read it. Also I am happy because through these Safwa Scriptures many of our people will be enlightened, young and old.”

As speeches ended, people eagerly bought copies of the New Testament and other materials the team had translated into Safwa. Meanwhile, the celebratory feasting proper for such a momentous day closed the festivities with as much joy as they had begun.

As the celebration drew to a close, many Safwa people gathered to see and buy copies of translated materials including the completed Safwa New Testament.

photo: Leonard Mwasandube

“This New Testament will be very important for the Safwa,” said Amani Mwandezi, a former Literacy and Scripture Engagement worker on the team. “They like their language, they want to praise God in their language. When they read the Bible in Safwa they will understand. Their lives can be changed. Swahili can be difficult, but Safwa is easy to read and touches their hearts.”

One speaker surprised and thrilled the crowd. Andrea Frank, a Translation Advisor from Germany, gave her remarks in the Safwa language. “I have worked with the Safwa for a very long time,” she explained afterwards. “This is a very special day for the Safwa, and for me, too. All the praise belongs to God, really. He is the one who sustained us and helped us — to him be the glory. Now we must pray for the Safwa, that they will read God’s Word and come to know him better and better.”

“I read in the Acts of the Apostles about Paul being taken to the council,” said another of the guest speakers. “When Paul spoke to them in their language, they listened to him carefully. I travel often, and I have heard people who speak other languages practicing their language on the journey. But the Safwa people, we have a game of hiding our language. No — let us speak it. There is no foreign language to God! He understands every tongue.”